Debating Hillary Clinton

LAS VEGAS, NV - OCTOBER 13:  Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton takes part in a presidential debate sponsored
LAS VEGAS, NV - OCTOBER 13: Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton takes part in a presidential debate sponsored by CNN and Facebook at Wynn Las Vegas on October 13, 2015 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Five Democratic presidential candidates are participating in the party's first presidential debate. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Beneath the din, the essence of Tuesday's debate can be distilled with relative ease. If consistent ideology is the sine qua non, one can stop at Bernie Sanders. But those concerned with the yawning political chasm between naming problems and solving them must employ a wider lens. Which brings us to Hillary Clinton, whose crisp and substantive performance served, at last, to resurrect her better self.

By now one can recite her problems on autopilot. For restive Democrats, she embodies the party's tilt toward the financial classes. Critics decry her speaking fees, or see her ties to Wall Street as a mortgage on her political soul. Too often her campaign can feel like a series of tactical feints bereft of an uplifting vision - at times a thought bubble seems to appear above her head, filled with focus groups, poll numbers and the conflicting voices of too many advisors. While smart as strategy, her recent shifts on TPP, the Keystone Pipeline and Obamacare's Cadillac Tax reinforce this image of a calculating politician, driven less by principal than by a rival whose principals never change. The ironic upshot is an all - too - familiar figure who seems all - too - elusive.

Her portrait has been further blurred by fuzzy campaign optics. Years of fending off attacks have bred an instinctive caution which can smother spontaneity. Her long history in public life overshadows that her quest is potentially historic, while serial re-introductions of each new persona have served only to obscure the person. A kaleidoscope of shifting accounts has made the email issue feel eternal, each thread tying Clinton down like Gulliver among the Lilliputians, hostage to the trope that she is entitled and disingenuous. All this has threatened to gel into a dispiriting ennui.

But such a litany disserves the effort to truly assess this complex woman. For she is neither the feminist icon of her fiercest devotees, nor the stock villain of the GOP's demented melodrama.

One starts by dismissing the zealots for whom she has become a human Rorschach Test. Whatever toxins emanate from Trey Gowdy's oh - so - selective committee, she did not abandon the victims of Benghazi. However ill-judged her use of a private server, the emails themselves amount to little. No credible evidence suggests that she sub-contracted policy decisions to the Clinton Foundation. Only those gripped by the psychic need to hate Hillary Clinton need linger in this fever swamp. The rest of us, at least, can note her hardihood in slogging through it.

Other qualities prepare her for this race. The marathon of 2008 produced an able and durable campaigner. Her skills as a debater - potentially critical in a close election - were again evident last night, likely foreclosing a Biden candidacy. Her proposals on key issues like financial regulation, tax policy and college debt relief are detailed and considered. She remains strong among Democrats writ large. And as a manner of electoral math, she can block the GOP from making headway where they need it most - white women.

As for her claim to higher office, it rests on capacities which few dispute. Strong-minded adversaries like John McCain and Lindsey Graham respect her intellect and grasp of policy. Colleagues describe a woman who works hard, assimilates complex information, and tests conventional wisdom, her high expectations leavened by good humor. Whatever her limitations in large settings, in smaller groups she is engaging, cogent and persuasive. Despite glaring misjudgments - see e.g., Iraq - she has amassed deep knowledge of foreign and domestic policy. By consensus she is prepared to fill the presidency.

The harder question is what core beliefs would inform this President Clinton. True, many challenges facing a president require acumen instead of ideology - as ever, competence matters. But what a president cares most about day-to-day matters just as much. Three decades of public engagement prove Clinton to be solidly left of center, sometimes markedly so. But it is colder comfort to assume that her judgments will reflect the political interests - and interest groups - associated with any Democratic president.

So a clear-eyed Democrat must measure Clinton and Sanders against a complex calculus. What candidate has the best chance to win, and to what end. How much does preventing a Republican president matter in itself. When does expedience on one issue promote success on another, and the refusal to compromise morph into comprehensive failure. Who has the skill and temperament to wrest results from a fractious Congress in such divisive times, pushing forward the party's stated agenda. And who can best confront the disparate challenges thrust at an American president.

For some the hope of seismic change will outweigh its probability, binding them to Bernie Sanders' impassioned crusade. But others who look past November 2016 to envision the difference between victory and defeat may conclude that, in the end, Hillary Clinton's dogged quest is the safest place to be.